Warsaw, Poland

Trip Start Mar 13, 2007
Trip End Aug 10, 2007

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Flag of Poland  , Central Poland,
Sunday, April 1, 2007

Wow!  This place has really changed since I spent a day here in 1996.  I recall a rather dull, gray place with a still very Communist appearance, one with some very nicely restored historic sights that was otherwise quite characterless.  Eleven years later Warsaw feels like a boomtown with plenty of expensive restaurants, hip clubs, pretentious cafes, and glassy new buildings.  What happened to the peddlers selling their household junk from blankets on the streets and to the Commie-style stores where everything was behind the counter and you had to ask for every item from the clerk?  The Stalinist "Palace of Culture" skyscraper has been joined by at least a dozen similarly sized glassy palaces of capitalism, almost everyone now speaks English, and from the looks of the traffic jams and surrounding suburban sprawl a real American-style car culture seems to be emerging.

Warsaw's beautiful Old Town and numerous Royal Palaces and Baroque churches are almost entirely reconstructions since the city was almost completely destroyed in WWII.  The city is quite flat and some of its sites spread out over a large area, so I decided to rent a bicycle on a warm Saturday when traffic wouldn't be to bad in order to take it all in. You might notice lots of blue sky in my pictures - I experienced an 11-day streak of cloudless skies and warm days, quite amazing for northern Europe in late March.

Warsaw has apparently become quite renowned in Europe for its jazz clubs, something I might not have been inclined to find out about were it not for my roommates at the hostel who were in town from Hungary largely to take in the jazz scene. Alice, Zoltan, and Christian invited me out to dinner and jazz club hopping with them for two nights, each evening after a good amount of homemade Tokay wine they brought along with them from Debrecen.

One thing that's quite different about Poland compared to the rest of Europe is that it's very religious.  Huge churches are prominent on the landscape throughout the continent, but some are now museums and many are empty most of the time save for a few old ladies dressed in black.  In Warsaw on Palm Sunday, though, huge churches all seemed to be packed for mass after mass all day long.  From the looks of it, masses in Poland must be G-rated and appropriate for audiences of all ages and both genders, rather than just for elderly females as in Italy or France.  All this religiosity has its downside, though; it really hampered my sightseeing since you can't really walk around a church looking at art when it's full of people using it for its intended purpose.

My church visitation plans scuttled, I decided to go to the top of the Palace of Culture, the gigantic gift to Warsaw from Stalin that's said to have the best view in town if for no other reason than it's the only place in town from which you can't see the building itself.  Like most Soviet architecture, it's horribly ugly, even more tastless and hilarious than Cold War era cinematic caricatures of Communist architecture.  The scowling/snarling coat room attendants in the basement who have all probably worked the same job there since the building opened were the icing on the cake to my trip back into Communist-era nostalgia at the P.O.C.


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